Hands On With The Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera

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With RAW video capture, the Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera is a dream solution for special-purpose video needs, like hiding in a scene or aerial photography.

Incredibly compact at external dimensions of only 3.25 x 2.74 x 2.57 inches, the 11-ounce $995 Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera saw some POV usage on a fast-moving commercial for Mountain Dew recently as professional race car driver Chase Elliott and friends careened around an off-road track with dune buggies in Utah’s Sevier Desert. The production needed crash-cam shots, and even though the 1080p Micro Cinema Camera does not offer 4K video, the footage culled from the Micro Cinema Cameras as the buggies plummeted through sand and beach was good enough to upscale for supplemental edits to the 4K commercial. It’s also been used for crash cams on films like last summer’s Jason Bourne.

With internal ProRes capture good enough for broadcast and HDR needs, the Micro Cinema was also chosen because it has RAW video in Adobe’s CinemaDNG format at 12-bit fidelity. (You’ll need top-tier professional cards to meet the sustained transfer times. The Micro Cinema manual recommends the SanDisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/sec SDHC UHS-I family, but the Extreme Plus 80 MB/sec SDXC UHS-I will also meet specs if using the 128 GB model. ProRes is supported by most cards.) Internal12-bit RAW capability translates to a dynamic range of 13 stops, far outclassing the competing action cam class, especially as those models all record in a variety of much thinner 8-bit H.264 formats.

Unlike the majority of those models, the Blackmagic Micro Cinema also sports an interchangeable lens mount in the form of the Micro Four Thirds mount started by Olympus and Panasonic in 2008. As digital natives, this millennial class of camera lenses have a much shorter flange distance, which makes them very small as well as very precise when using upper shelf models. Sigma sent me an extremely lightweight Micro Four Thirds 30mm F1.4 DC DV lens to use with the Micro Cinema. The lens is part of the Sigma Art line of APS-C, constant-aperture lenses, so it will also cover other formats like the Sony E-mount, as well. Though the sensor in the Micro Cinema is Super 16-sized at 12.48 x 7.02 mm, I had no problem achieving a very shallow depth of field with such a large aperture despite the Micro Cinema’s very small image circle at roughly half the size of 35mm.

An active MFT mount supports electronic communication as well as optical image stabilization, too, which is very useful in action video with compatible Micro Four Thirds cameras. One major problem with the MFT format is the lack of wide angle lenses. Most MFT models have a 2.0x magnification, actually a crop from the image circle, and the Micro Cinema is pulled in even more with a 35mm equivalence of 2.88x. So while there are a few 7mm and 7.5mm models available in the MFT world of prime and zoom lenses, these give a field of view that starts out at an equivalent of 20.16mm minimum in the Micro Cinema. On the other hand, the Super 16-sized sensor is easy to cover by pretty much every lens mount out there through MFT lens adapters that are available from companies like Metabones and Fotodiox.

So for a few hundred more, you can use everything from Canon EF-S to traditional PL mount cinema glass, which is good, because there aren’t too many manual MFT lenses, either. Conversely, you can go with a C-mount to MFT adapter, which will convert old school 16mm lenses to the Micro Cinema. There are a huge variety of old 16mm lenses available secondhand, but of course you will lose electronic functions. Keep in mind that many adapters will also cause vignetting.

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The Blackmagic “Pocket” Cinema Camera at $995, first announced in 2013, houses the same internals, but with the “Micro” Cinema Camera, Blackmagic has updated the sensor and processing while shrinking down the entire system to the bare essentials. They removed the handle for example. Aside from the size, this is thanks to the most remarkable feature of the Micro Cinema, a breakout cabling system with commonly used DB-HD15 interface port. Built into the side, the expansion port makes the Micro Cinema very versatile for remote operation, live events, POV and helmet mounts, aerial photography and drone work, or gimbaled setups with motorized or remote controls like the DJI Ronin.

The expansion port is used by the modding community, and while videographers and photographers may not be familiar with just how customizable the interface can be, many multimedia professionals working with aerial systems have already had some experience with a few of the capabilities. Wired remote control is available through a LANC cable, or there are also four PWM radio remote control inputs for mapping different channels to camera functions to use with common model airplane controllers. An 18-channel S.Bus cable also makes it compatible with customized controllers or Futaba-based radio control interfaces. Futaba is a Japanese company that makes a number of advanced radio-communication controllers for model airplanes and RC cars.

Channels can be reconfigured for controls over camera functions for wireless focusing, iris adjustment and zooming, as well as a number of other possibilities through radio control receivers like Internet connectivity, live streaming and app control from iOS or Android devices. The modifications and custom options can be very complex, but there are already a number of discussions in the Blackmagic forums on the advanced wiring capabilities.

Wires can easily be pared back on the expansion cable, too, so heavy users can build their own breakout cabling systems as needed or buy multiple setups at $35 each additional cabling.  Or of course you can simply leave the wire clutter and it works fine, though the OCD in me had a hard time with all the hanging wires. It seems that it would be more environmentally friendly to have wires that could be plugged in and out as needed, but I’m sure that would add quite a bit to the cost of the DB-HD15 serial connector.

There is also a genlock input in the cabling for syncing video sources from cameras, useful for 3D video and multiple camera or remote operation setups. Lastly, NTSC and PAL composite video output is included for remote monitoring when a standard definition signal is more efficient to transmit. The HDMI output can be used with video transmitter systems when desiring transmission of larger HD video wirelessly. Both overlay camera status and settings with embedded audio.

Externally, the Micro Cinema has three 1/4” attachment points at the base as well as an additional thread on top for audio or lighting as well as wireless transmitters for aerial or live-stream needs. Camera rigs with cheeseplates or other support systems can add more options. The audio is fairly limited with 2-channel 48kHz and 24-bit output via HDMI as well as 3.5mm input or integrated stereo microphone. The 3.5mm can also be used as a timecode input, however, and mics also cancel internal audio after being plugged in.

While it all sounds very complicated, basic camera functions are pretty simple to use, granted I’m used to the familiar Blackmagic menu system. Six control buttons on the body of the camera step through basic operations via monitor, which is not included. Iris, for example, can be performed manually through the Rewind/Previous and Forward buttons. There is also one-touch Menu, Record and Power that provide one-touch operation with tally light and card status to run without any peripherals at all. A USB 2.0 Mini-B port is also housed for updates.

Formatting the cards and most other operations took me all of two seconds to figure out and execute via the 1920 x 1200 touchscreen interface of Blackmagic’s Video Assist 4K 7” recording monitor, which was capable of displaying the 10-Bit, 4:2:2 ProRes codecs during capture. It’s a nice complement to the system, but if you balk at the additional $895, they also offer the smaller 5” Video Assist at $495. There are even several choices available out of camera in the Micro Cinema: Apple ProRes 422 HQ at 27.5 MB/s, ProRes 422 at 18.4 MB/s, ProRes 422 LT at 12.75 MB/s and ProRes 422 Proxy for meeting the needs of low bandwidth uploads at 5.6 MB/s.

Frame rates are available in the popular 24p, 30p, 50p and 60p as well as 25p, which you don’t see often in still camera systems, as well as 23.98p, 59.94p and 29.97p for meeting the exact frame rate needs of Europe’s PAL broadcast specs. Lastly, there is 1080i at 50 fps and 59.94 fps for interlaced options to save on media capacity and/or make the streams more condensed for wireless transmissions. The HDMI video output can be used for monitoring and 422 ProRes output to compatible devices. Lossless Compressed CinemaDNG RAW, at a bit rate of 65 MB/s, must be captured internally. Also, there are two modes. The Film mode offers the full dynamic range of 13 stops with CinemaDNG. Alternatively, a Video mode will capture directly in REC709, a color space that will meet the needs of high definition video broadcast, with ProRes available.

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As originally promised, a global shutter would enhance the system’s performance, as always with rolling shutter sensors such as this you will have some skew and jelly motion during fast pans or camera movements. The Blackmagic menu does allow very specific shutter angles to be set in combination with ISO, however, and I was able to pull some very crisp shots during rapid movements. DaVinci Resolve grading and editing software is included, which is a nice bonus with all Blackmagic cameras as you can edit Blackmagic’s unique CinemaDNG natively, and there are also workflows for other NLE systems.

A 12V AC adapter is included, but the power options are much more sophisticated than that. With 12V-20V support of DC power, the Micro Cinema can route through the DB-HD15 expansion port for customized battery needs and long-term placement. Rounding out the very solid magnesium-alloy external design, Blackmagic swapped out the battery system from the EN-EL20 in the Pocket Cinema Camera to rear-mounted Canon LP-E6-style batteries, which are fairly common as it’s a system inherited from the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D. The LP-E6 can be used as backup during live recording, and is recharged by plugging in the camera, though a charger is not included. (Blackmagic sells LP-E6 batteries at $35.)

In general, I find the Blackmagic look to be very green/gray, but the Film mode in CinemaDNG was really much warmer than I’m used to right out of the box, so it may be the majority of projects that I’ve seen have been completed in memory-saving Video mode. All in all, it’s an incredibly versatile system that can function as a great backup solution for DSLR or mirrorless users with MFT or even Canon or Sony glass. For anything on the web, or B- or C-cam placement, it’s a great solution as long as you’re aware that you’ll need extra equipment to fully employ its benefits. I would expect that the modifications and hacker communities would go wild the Micro Cinema, as well.

I very much enjoyed working with this camera, and would definitely consider it useful as a backup solution, in particular if I already have a monitor and don’t have to worry about the extra expense of a camera listing at just under a thousand dollars. For that reason, I do suggest that those of you looking at the Micro Cinema Camera might also take a look at its bigger brother, the $1,295 Micro Studio Camera 4K,which I feel may be the better purchase, as it is also available at only $300 more street with the same features, though lacking RAW, as well as 4K video and additional options in the expansion port. It differs slightly in specs, with a slightly larger sensor at 13.056 x 7.344mm and, of course, UHD resolution at 3840 x 2160 in up to 30 fps. Just as the Micro Cinema Camera is the more compact version of the Pocket Cinema Camera, the Micro Studio Camera 4K is the shrunken version of the $1,695 Blackmagic Studio Camera sans 10” viewfinder.

You can see the full review on the Blackmagic Micro Studio Camera 4K here.

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